Don't Be Evil: 3 Ways Google Maps is Making the World A Better Place

It’s no secret that Google's greatest asset is its data. But beyond its social and knowledge graph, what else is all of that information good for? Well, good, for one. Here's how a sample of nonprofit, grant-powered projects we saw at Google I/O last week are harvesting the company's resources to effect global change.

Monitoring the Environment with Google Earth Engine

If you use Google Maps regularly, it's probably to hunt down a coffee shop in a new neighborhood or check traffic on your commute. But Google Earth Engine, part of the greater Google Maps umbrella, is all about thinking big - really big. Google Earth Engine collects petabyte-scale satellite images at a range of wavelengths and then crunches them together using Google’s powerful cloud server clusters. The Earth Engine platform incorporates “trillions of measurements,” including elevation and atmospheric data, dating back as much as 25 years. The result is a rich set of environmental data with an even richer array of applications, including modeling minefields to raise awareness in Cambodia and Angola and measuring carbon levels in Sumatra's delicate rainforests.

Google Earth Engine data powered the most detailed map of the Mexican forest ever created, but even with a huge amount of input data, instead of weeks, "It took us less than a day because we were able to spread it out across multiple computers," according to Dave Thau, Developer Advocate for Google Earth Engine. That kind of number-crunching power makes it possible to assess climate change and deforestation with unprecedented speed and accuracy - and the applications will only expand as more developers put the Earth Engine API to good use.

Building an Accessible World Through Crowdsourcing

For anyone with a disability, picking a spot for dinner isn’t as simple as looking up an address - getting there is half the battle. Jason DaSilva, a filmmaker and activist in the disability community, recognized that struggle and put Google Maps to work on a project known as AXS Maps.

DaSilva was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 25. After creating a series of short films around the challenges of life with limited mobility, DaSilva went on to found AXS Map, a project that collects crowd-sourced data on accessibility for people with canes, walkers, wheelchairs and even parents with strollers.

According to Kevin Bluer, an AXS Map developer, "One of the goals is to be able to see [venues that are accessible] before you go. How spacious is it on the inside? Do they have an accessibility ramp?” Calling ahead often paints a very incomplete portrait of accessibility, so the kind of first-hand knowledge collected by AXS Maps is invaluable. DaSilva invites anyone to start contributing real, human-powered data about accessibility in their own neighborhoods.

Wildlife Conservation: Tracking Kenya's Elephants

For Save the Elephants, the biggest challenge to wildlife conservation can be just keeping track of animals to begin with. With poaching and habitat threats increasingly chipping away at the Kenyan elephant population, the London-based nonprofit needs to know how many elephants are out there - and what they’re doing. 

Save the Elephants has partnered with Google Earth Outreach to create a secure, real-time method for tracking the animals it intends to preserve. The group fits elephants (and other species it works to protect) with GPS-enabled collars to collect home range data, migratory patterns and other spatial behavior that provides insight about the animals’ behavior.

In Kenya there's a problem with human/wildlife conflict between animals and crop-growers, and destructive elephants can be legally put down by the government. In one mapping success story, Save the Elephants was able to exonerate an elephant known as Mountain Bull (who’s something of a celebrity, among elephants anyway) by proving that it hadn’t wandered into the crop area it was accused of trampling.

Developers with a new geocentric spin on social good can apply for a fresh round of Google Earth Outreach Developer Grants (announced Thursday at Google I/O) now through August 1.